With the news that Dave Grohl is making a film about his favourite studio Sound City, I thought it a good time to do a rundown of my all-time favourite music docs.
I spent ages sifting through the archives to bring you the definitive collection of films that should be on every musician and producers viewing list: regardless of your own genre, these are all massively inspiring and offer real insights into all sorts of production styles and creative processes, all of which will aid your own approach to music production. The list covers everything from Techno, House and Hip Hop to 60’s Pop, Rock, Metal, Dub and Dylan. Enjoy!
1. Tom Dowd & the Language of Music
Dir. Mark Moormann, 2004
This is perhaps the one unmissable film on the list, regardless of what kind of music you’re making. As well as telling the story of relatively little-known but hugely influential producer Tom Dowd, the film offers a fantastic history of recording and producing music, from the primitive early days to the computer/digital revolution. Thought-provoking and very inspiring. Get it here.
Dir. Doug Pray, 2001
In Pray’s own words, “A feature-length documentary film about hip-hop DJing, otherwise known as turntablism. From the South Bronx in the 1970s to San Francisco now, the world’s best scratchers, beat-diggers, party-rockers, and producers wax poetic on beats, breaks, battles, and the infinite possibilities of vinyl.” Get it here.
3. High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music
Dir. Gary Bredow, 2006
This excellent film about the birth and evolution of Detroit Techno focuses on the holy trinity of the genre: Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, and also features interviews with Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Carl Cox and Matthew Dear. Essential viewing for every dance music producer. Get it here.
4. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Dir. Stephen Kijak, 2006
The story of a 60’s pop star turned reclusive, mysterious and actual genius producer, this film is a great watch even if you’ve never heard of Scott Walker. Not least because of the bizarreness of watching people who are icons in their own right, such as David Bowie, bowing down before his genius. Get it here.
5. Classic Albums – The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
Dir. Roger Pomphrey, 2005
What makes the Classic Albums series an absolute must view for every producer is the format of each film: it’s not just the story of the making of an album, but you actually sit down at the mix console with the producer, engineer or artists (sometimes all at once) and they talk through the individual elements of key songs, bringing up the faders for each track as they go.
The Electric Ladyland film is a favourite because it demonstrates how Hendrix (and his team, including engineer Eddie Kramer) was so ahead of his time in terms of how he constructed his songs with layers and effects in the studio, in a way we take for granted now. Get it here.
Dir. Hans Fjellestad, 2005
The story of Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synth. It’s amazing to think just how far-reaching the effects of his work have been: would your favourite electronic genres sound the same if it hadn’t been for the Moog? The film also includes many good interviews with people like sometime-Nine Inch Nail Charlie Clouser, Keith Emerson, Luke Vibert, DJ Spooky and Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike. Get it here.
7. Stones In Exile
Dir. Stephen Kijak, 2010
This is the story of the making of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. album. At that time the Stones had literally been hounded out of England, so they decamped to the South of France, and set about recording in the sprawling basement complex of Keith Richards mansion. Great insight into a totally unorthodox approach (at least for the time) to recording, that ended up giving the album an incredibly atmospheric sound. Get it here.
8. Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution
Dir. Rob Johnstone 2008
If Bob Moog was the guy who created the potential, the equipment, for electronic music that would change everything, Kraftwerk were one of the bands that actually made that music. This film actually goes into the whole German ‘Krautrock’ scene that Kraftwerk sprung from, so you get nice bits of Neu!, Can, Cluster and Klaus Schulze too. And if you make music but don’t know who any of those bands or artists are you must watch this! Get it here.
9. Pioneers of Electronic Music, Vol. 1: Richie Hawtin
Dir. Slices Magazine, 2006
It’s fun going from the films on Moog and Kraftwerk to a profile of a producer who is really at the cutting edge of current technology and electronic music. A fascinating insight into Hawtin’s personal and creative lives, being part of the second wave of Detroit Techno producers (kind of), and his views and approach to technology in music. Get it here.
NB: I haven’t been able to find any other ‘Volumes’ from this series, does anyone know if there are any / where to find them?
10. Classic Albums – Nirvana: Nevermind
Dir. Unknown, 2005
Another favourite from this series. Featuring amazing in-depth analysis of stuff like the harmonies between Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl’s voices, and how producer Butch Vig created the huge sounds of the guitars and Grohl’s drums. An obvious must for every rock producer or musician, but also for electronic producers who can get some tips on bringing the energy and dynamism of rock to their sounds. Get it here.
11. Foo Fighters: Back And Forth
Dir. James Moll, 2011
The Classic Albums film on Nevermind and this make a good double-bill. As much as anything else I thought the film demonstrates the absolute professionalism required to be a modern rock star, especially with the scenes of Grohl recording again with Butch Vig – in between swimming appointments with his daughter. Get it here.
12. The Future Is Unwritten
Dir. Julien Temple, 2007
The story of Clash frontman Joe Strummer. I defy anyone not to be inspired and intrigued by Strummer and his contradictions: the son of a British diplomat, he visited many countries when he was young, and his open, universal worldview eventually out-grew the punk posturing, which is reflected in the developing and genre-blending sound of The Clash. Fun interviews with Johnny Depp, John Cusack and many others sitting round a campfire reminiscing, interspersed with great clips of Strummers voice from his London Calling BBC World Service radio show. Get it here.
13. Synth Britannia
Dir. Benjamin Whalley, 2009
From the BBC World Service to BBC4, this is an excellent account of the birth of British synthpop, featuring Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, and Cabaret Voltaire. Influenced by Kraftwerk, and going on to influence in their turn everyone from the early House and Techno producers to industrial metal, these guys occupy a key place on the musical family tree of the 20th century and paved the way for a lot of our current music – they took the experiments of the synth pioneers and crafted pop songs out of them. Trent Reznor was clearly taking notes.
This film isn’t available on DVD as far as I know, but you can find more info here, and I’m pretty sure you can find it on Youtube with a quick search :)
Dir. Carl Hindmarch, 2001
Fast-forward from 80’s synthpop and the foundations it laid for electronic dance music, to this: the story of House music.
Get past the pretty dated (already!) turn-of-the-millennium ‘state of dance music today’ intro, and you get into the excellent and timeless story of the roots and beginings of House. An absolutely fundamental education for every aspiring club music producer.
This was originally a 3-part TV series and I can’t find it available to buy online – but again have a quick look on Youtube and you might find all three parts joined together as a ‘feature-length’ version…
15. Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster
Dir. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 2004
A picture of a super-successful band in turmoil, this film is entertaining and painful in equal measure, but always fascinating. It also features insightful scenes on writing, recording and editing a modern big-budget rock/metal album, including a view on how producer Bob Rock tries to channel the problems and conflicting egos into the creative aspects of the record. With help/undermining from the band therapist. Get it here.
16. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart – A Film About Wilco
Dir. Sam Jones, 2002
An account of the epically difficult recording of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with band members leaving and continual run-ins with their record label – followed by it’s critical and commercial reception as an album of the year. Massively inspiring (eventually), it’s a great example of creativity and artistic risk-taking triumphing over the money-men. A more uplifting companion film to Some Kind Of Monster perhaps!? Get it here.
17. Classic Albums – Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
Dir. Matthew Longfellow, 2003
One of the most comprehensive Classic Albums episodes, with all the members of the band present, as well as producer Alan Parsons going through the original multitracks, and plenty of archive footage. An album where everything came together in perfect balance, from the explorations of the central themes (the Circle of Life, madness, death… you know, the usual) to the sonic experiments with guitars and synths, it “transformed Pink Floyd from art house favorites to global, stadium superstars”. Get it here.
18. Dub Echoes
Dir. Bruno Natal, 2007
Jamaican Dub was the first genre of music where the studio became an instrument in it’s own right. I’m still looking for an absolutely definitive documentary on Jamaican Dub Reggae and it’s stylistic/technological breakthroughs, but this one – about the continuing influence of Dub on the production techniques and sound of more recent styles of electronic music and Hip Hop – is very good, and has a great lineup of interviews from King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Basement Jaxx, Howie B and Mario Caldato Jr. Get it here.
(Another good one worth mentioning as a companion to Dub Echoes is Kevin MacDonald’s amazing recent doc Marley. MacDonald is an Oscar-winning filmmaker, so you know he’s going to make a good job of telling Bob Marley’s story here. Get it here.)
19. Bob Dylan – No Direction Home
Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2005
Too much to say to fit in here… Scorsese artfully covers all the angles – including studio sessions – to construct a picture of Dylan that makes it seem like you’re really getting to know and understand what he’s about, while acknowledging that any attempt to pin him down is kind of futile. Of course, a fascinating insight into the creative process, including the constant recreation of his own identity, that any artist will find inspiring. And if you don’t know why people go on and on about why he’s so special, this is the ideal primer. Get it here.
20. Joy Division
Dir. Grant Gee, 2007
I didn’t think very much of Anton Corbijn’s Control (also from 2007), the dramatized account of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. – especially when this, the real-life story of Curtis and the band, has all the drama, larger-than-life characters, tragedy and excitement that you would want from any fiction film. This spooky film is gripping and visceral like no other documentary I know, and absolutely guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck with the archive material of the live performances. It’s allowed on this list because it also has some fun stuff about how the band rather unwittingly developed their iconic sound in the studio, with the help of producer Martin Hannett and his fondness for AMS digital delays and looping atmos tracks. Get it here.
Any that I’ve left out? Don’t forget to leave a comment below!
For a host of tips and techniques for getting the most out of all of your plugins and studio gear in your tracks, don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides series: